A War Without End, And Without Victory

Karl Rove, the White House’s man assigned to winning the fall elections for the Republicans, says that the way to do it is to brag on how well the President has handled that illusive struggle called the “war against terrorism.” The Democrats seem ready to concede the point; they’re saying it’s everything else Mr. Bush and his oil-soaked administration have screwed up.

What are the outward signs of Mr. Bush’s competence as a war leader? Victory? Hardly. This is a strange war. Mr. Bush and other officials put the emphasis on the war’s duration. We hear more about how long it’s going to be than about winning it. During the Vietnam War, the nation agonized over winning or losing. In the Second World War, there was V.E. Day, which stood for “Victory in Europe” Day, and V.J. Day, which stood for the same in Japan. So what about Victory over Terrorism Day? The way they talk, V.T. Day will never come.

Mr. Bush is practically promising there will be no victory, because this is a different kind of war. The subtext is that he thinks it’s unwinnable. Certainly his war aims are vague. Sometimes he does his Osama-dead-or-alive schtick, and sometimes the robot who does the White House press briefings says that capturing Mr. bin Laden or killing him isn’t important in the war against terrorism. Over at the Pentagon, Don Rumsfeld peddles a line about our fighting invisible battles we’ll never hear about because it’s a new kind of war which will go on for a long, long time and we may never know if we’ve won it. In the meantime, dial up the volume on “God Bless America” and hand out fresh flags for everybody’s car aerials–the old ones are getting tatty.

As time passes, the “war” looks more like a gimmick to keep certain politicians in office than it does a struggle against a named and definable enemy. The White House line on the–ahem! cough-cough!–victory in Afghanistan is that we got a lot of Al Qaeda videos and dusty computer floppies of uncertain value. On certain days when they’re playing us these scratchy Osama tapes, the war resembles a raid on the Blockbuster store in Kabul.

Ah, but there are other trophies of our grand victory. There’s that guy from California who decided at age 16 to become a Muslim and wound up fighting for the Taliban. We got him, the little traitor–don’t think we won’t fry his ass. It may not be Austerlitz or Malplaquet or any of the great military victories in history, but Mr. Bush’s forces did capture those guys they put in the orange suits and sent off to Guantánamo Bay, where we can show Fidel Castro the humane way to lock people up.

It follows that the namby-pambies would attack Mr. Bush’s treatment of his prisoners. The namby-pambies can’t understand that these guys are not white men, so it’s O.K. They are off-white men, which is Arab, and the rules don’t apply to them. Maybe they’re terrorists, or maybe they’re “unlawful combatants.” When we went to war against them, they didn’t apply to the U.N.’s War Certification Office, where they issue licenses to make it jake to fight us. You do not want to be fighting the U.S. of A. without permission, a stamped permit and, incidentally, a proper uniform–unless, of course, you believe orange is a flattering color.

Sooner or later the Afghan phase of the never-to-end war against terrorism will have to fade out. Either the people will be dead or reduced to blithering idiocy from the bombing or the bullshit or both. However it ends in Afghanistan, the one constant is the impression that the Americans have no idea of where they are or what they’re doing, except roaring around posing for little TV propaganda bits glorifying our might, our valor and our unconquerable dedication to the cause of Freedom. Hey, baby, it’s Operation Enduring Freedom time. If this horse opera had not begun in response to the crime of Sept. 11, one might suggest they put the whole thing to music.

The crime of Sept. 11 was never a sane basis for going to war. This is a crime that needs be handled by the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the police and intelligence agencies, not by the Army and Air Force and Navy. Everything we know about Sept. 11 and other such attacks tells us that the networks of perpetrators are limited in number to a few thousand people–far too few to spread out and too deeply hidden for military action. These few move among millions who sympathize with them but aren’t active terrorists, so the choice is between thumping around with an army or using means suitable for the task–the police and intelligence agencies.

For decades, those with eyes to see have watched the Israelis, who have all the guns, all the artillery, all the supersonic fighters, etc., pound the crap out of the Palestinians, and what do they have to show for it? There isn’t an Israeli in the world–man, woman or child–who can walk down a street anywhere without being afraid someone will jump out at him and slit his throat. The more Palestinians the Israelis kill, the more Israel lives in terror.

For all our armed force has accomplished, we have gained little protection. We’re reduced to strip-searching everybody boarding an airplane. We’re afraid to leave anything unguarded. Nothing is safe; everybody has the jitters. If this is winning the war, I’d hate to find out what losing it consists of. We’ll know that the war against terrorism is won when they put the metal detectors and the bomb sniffers in trucks and cart them away. But George Bush isn’t talking about that.

There’s a word for a non-winner, and that word is “loser.”